NZNO's Blog

Pacific migrant workers not the solution for aged care staffing

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By Eseta Finau,
Board Member and Pacific Nurses Section Chair,
New Zealand Nurses Organisation

Rather than dignify recent foolish comments made by media presenters about Pacific nations, I would like to address an issue to do with Pacific people made a little earlier this month.

The World Bank has suggested that the shortage of aged care workers looming here and in Australia could be solved by welcoming young employees from Pacific countries. The Bank’s reasoning seems to be that New Zealand has too many older people and Pacific nations have too many young people – so it’s a marriage made in Heaven.

But what may seem so simple a solution on paper to the World Bank, and to others who have echoed such calls in the media, may not be any real solution in the long run.

In New Zealand, aged care workers often have poor wages and conditions so the workforce is mostly made up of skilled migrants who are willing to work for lower pay in their struggle to get by. They do have some training and skills and they are dedicated and hard-working. There’s no doubt they do an incredible job despite poor conditions, and that may well be because many are from cultures that especially respect and care for the elderly.

But the reality is we need more registered and enrolled nurses as well as the best skilled but less-qualified aged care workers. In other words, we need to take a ‘whole workforce’ approach rather than an ill-informed ethnic-centred approach. The World Bank’s short-sighted suggestion will do nothing to improve workforce development and staffing polices in aged care for the future because it is not ‘whole workforce’.

It’s also insulting and patronising to Pacific young people. As a Tongan woman, Tongan nurse, mother, auntie, sister and grandmother – and as a New Zealand-based advocate for Pacific people – I am prompted to ask, is accepting a poorly paid job that very few want to do all we think our young people are good for?

Instead we should be welcoming Pacific young people – alongside young Māori and any young person wanting a challenging and rewarding career – into the nursing profession through training and appropriate qualifications.

At the same time we should be increasing pay rates and improving working conditions to make aged care work more attractive to all. This would stop many qualified and experienced people leaving the sector to work where pay and conditions are better. It would also mean the aged care workers left behind to take up the slack get the sort of remuneration and working conditions they deserve.

That’s a solution that will afford dignity to young Pacific migrants, to aged care workers generally, and to the elderly themselves. It may also help ensure that those of us approaching old age are cared for with the respect and professionalism we deserve when our time in aged care comes along.

Let’s get real, aged care deserves more investment in workforce development and safe staffing, and Pacific aged care workers deserve better respect from the commentators on the World Bank’s report.

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